Skopje: where crime sometimes pays

The last time I was in Skopje, I had come to persuade the Macedonian interior minister to sign up to a trans-Balkan action plan for tackling organised crime to be launched at a ministerial conference in London. This time, many years on, the only crimes in evidence were a most curious and incongruous collection of neo-classical statues and buildings that had sprouted up all around the city centre since my last visit.

A towering statue of Alexander the Great looked down from his fountain perch on modern day Macedonians scurrying across the main square towards work or pleasure. Looming over the river was an enormous colonnaded archaeological museum where a few modest finds rattled around a cavernous interior; curiously none of these related to Alexander or his era. Monumental marble fountains abound, incorporating giant bronze figures that celebrate historical heroes, legends, motherhood and the struggle for nationhood. While impressive in scale and execution, it all felt more like a Vegas or Disneyland-style reimagining of past glories rather than a serious attempt to portray the nation’s rich history.

This was all part of the Skopje 2014 urban planning project, ordered by then Prime Minister Gruevski in line with his party’s so-called “antiquisation” policy, a controversial identity policy that sought to draw a direct line between ancient Macedonians and today’s ethnic Macedonians. Both the policy and the structures still divide opinion while the Prime Minister himself later fled in disgrace after being found guilty of corruption.

Yet it is the vast sums of public money invested (up to 500 million Euros according to some critics) on the building programme in a nation where unemployment ran at 30 to 40% that represent his greatest crime. Thankfully, he left undisturbed the quaint Ottoman old town, just as I remembered it from all those years before. Although its main access routes are now guarded by all those giant sentinels of kitsch, one can soon hurry past them and immerse oneself in a more genuine representation of the past.

Once again, I could wind my way up through cobblestoned streets to the castle ramparts for wonderful views of the city and its surrounding mountains as the call to prayer echoed from the city’s minarets. I could enjoy the intriguing contrast of modern art displayed on the ancient walls of Ottoman hammams, witness in the bazaar the genuine hustle and bustle of trade rather than the touristy charade preserved elsewhere, and admire the stunning wood carving on a two-tiered iconostasis in a subterranean orthodox church. Looking back, I’m really glad I didn’t commit my own crime of ignoring true heritage in protest at one man’s historical vanity project.

Photo credit: Andrii Lutsyk on Shutterstock

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